Impala replica from “Up in Smoke” is so accurate it’s crazy, man
The most famous lowrider this side of Gypsy Rose likely went Up in Smoke decades ago. Well, maybe not literally. The 1964 Chevy Impala SS that starred in Cheech and Chong’s cult classic may have simply perished like a lot of shit-can used cars did in the late 1970s—sold for a few hundred bucks, it was probably driven into the ground and disposed of in a junkyard, maybe even crushed.
What a sad ending for a car known as Love Machine. Except the story doesn’t end there.
While the exact Impala that appeared in the ground-breaking, pot-smoking comedy may be long gone, the popularity of its four-wheeled movie star lives on. Steve Kimmel made sure of it. Kimmel, a longtime car guy who works in the film industry, created a Love Machine replica that is so exact to the original car from Up in Smoke that even Cheech and Chong couldn’t find anything out of place. (Well, there was this one thing. More about that later.)
“I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right,” says Kimmel, who was inspired to recreate the Love Machine while working on a yet-to-be-released documentary about the counterculture comedy duo. “That meant a lot of time and research, and it cost more to do it that way, of course. But once I got going, I wasn’t going to settle for ‘close enough.’”
Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong were little-known comedians performing in the Los Angeles area when record producer Lou Adler joined a friend at one of their shows in the early 1970s. He was blown away. “Basically I said to the guy that was with me at the time, ‘I’d like to record these guys,’” Adler told reporter John Blackstone on CBS Sunday Morning in 2018. “And he said, ‘I think you’re crazy. How you gonna record ‘em?’”
Marin recalled that in their initial meeting, Adler asked the duo, “What do you wanna do?”
“I don’t know,” Marin responded. “Make a record?”
“What kind?” Adler asked.
Marin looked at Adler’s award-covered walls and said, “Gold!”
Chong said Adler asked the two what they needed to get started, and Chong requested “$1000 and a little tape recorder.” Cheech quickly jumped in and said, “There’s two of us.”
“That’s right,” Chong said. “So we need $2000!”
The duo’s first studio recording, the self-titled Cheech and Chong, came out in 1971. It features one of their best-known skits, the dim-witted “Dave.” The album did well, climbing to #28 on the Billboard charts and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Recording. And there was plenty more to come.
Where there’s smoke…
By the time Adler decided to make a movie starring the Latino funnymen, who became friends in Vancouver in the late 1960s, Cheech and Chong had five records under their belts. However, none of the men—not Adler, not Marin, not Chong—had a clue how to make a movie. That didn’t seem to matter. They knew (from personal experience, of course) they already had the golden ticket to silly laughter and a sudden craving for Doritos: marijuana. After Chong wrote a song called Up in Smoke, that became the film’s title.
“Adler said that on the first day of shooting, the assistant director had to tell him, ‘You’re supposed to say, Action!’” Kimmel says with a laugh. “They didn’t know what they were doing, but they had absolutely no fear of failure. That’s really the only way you can create a film like that, just go for it.
“Of course, Paramount surrounded Lou with a lot of experienced people who wouldn’t let a bunch of stoners run the thing into the ground.”
The movie, which essentially brought Cheech and Chong’s stage material to life, is about the accidental friendship of pot-smoking musician Pedro De Pacas (Marin) and perpetually high Anthony “Man” Stoner (Chong). The pot—er, plot—centers around De Pacas, who is putting a rock group together to compete in a battle of the bands when he picks up a hitchhiking Stoner, who’s just been kicked out of his parents’ house.
Production designers were tasked with creating the perfect cannabis car for Pedro—and they had less than a week to do it. “They built it in a hurry,” says Kimmel, who, as an art director himself, knows the pressure they were under. “They threw everything on it, just stuck stuff on because they didn’t have time to do it any other way. There are scenes where you can see stuff falling off. But what they did in such a short amount of time was a miracle.”
The result was Pedro’s tripped-out 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS lowrider Love Machine, which technically wasn’t even a lowrider, since it did not have hydraulics and couldn’t hop. Decked out with every silly stereotypical accessory in the book, “Some people in the Latino community found it offensive, and that’s understandable, but that was Cheech and Chong,” Kimmel says. “People eventually embraced it. Those two [Pedro and Stoner] are the two most beloved characters I’ve ever been around, and so is the car. People absolutely love it.”
The movie wasn’t exactly a hit when it was released in 1978, but it has since become a cult classic, just as the Love Machine has. That was evident last year, when Up in Smoke celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Just the right car
Kimmel, 60, diligently searched for the original Love Machine but came up empty. When he finally accepted that the car was gone, he vowed to do the next best thing by creating a replica—not just any replica, but one that the nitpickers could find nothing to nitpick about. That meant Kimmel had to find and buy a ’64 Impala, and that Impala “had to be a Super Sport, not just an Impala with Super Sport badging.” He imagined Cheech and Chong driving around in it, and it had to be just right. “I took it as a challenge,” Kimmel says.
He eventually located a 1964 Impala SS “that needed everything. It didn’t run, it didn’t drive.” In other words, it was pretty much the perfect canvas for what he was about to do. So Kimmel bought it. The transformation was gradual and purposeful. For instance, “It took a while for me to find the right body colors,” Kimmel says. “You have to take into account that colors from a 1978 film look different than they do now.
“I wanted the fur to look the same, so I had to dye it and trim it. And I didn’t want to just glue it in, I wanted something that would last. I had to find someone willing to make patterns and sew them together so it would actually function like a headliner. Thankfully, I have a lot of assets in the film industry, so I knew where to go.”
Kimmel had to make the car’s iconic eight-inch chain-link steering wheel. “The old joke is, why did they have that eight-inch steering wheel? They’ll tell you it was so they could drive with handcuffs on,” he says with a laugh. “If you look close enough in the movie, the key chain is a single handcuff, so naturally I had to do that, too.”
The biggest head-scratcher for Kimmel was figuring out exactly what the rectangular-shaped item on the dash was. He thought it looked like a small television screen, but of course, he knew that was impossible in 1978. After examining photos and re-watching the movie, he still wasn’t absolutely certain. It was Marin who vaguely remembered that since the car didn’t have a rearview mirror attached to the windshield glass, it was a mirror that had been built into the dash. Bingo.
With the help of his friend Jeff Hamrick, who Kimmel says “is as meticulous as I am,” the car was transformed in less than six months. It has a 327-cubic-inch V-8 under the hood, but it has a Powerglide transmission—not a four-speed, as we’re led to believe in the film. Think that’s a mistake? Think again. “The original Love Machine was not a four-speed,” Kimmel says, “but people think it is because Chong made those shifting sounds in one scene.”
Reunited, and it feels so good
Upon completion of the new Love Machine, Kimmel reached out to Marin and Chong and offered them use of the car. He didn’t hear anything for weeks, but then Marin called and asked if he would display the Impala in front of The Rose in Pasadena, where he was doing a show.
“I parked it out front, shook hands with the owner of the club, and came back an hour later,” Kimmel says. “The street was packed. There had to be 200 people out there. I thought, ‘Cheech must have shown up early,’ but then I realized it was just the car. People freaked out. They were taking photos of it and selfies with it. And then Cheech showed up, and I watched him just slip into that old pose. It was amazing.”
Several months passed, then Rhino Records and Paramount Pictures requested use of the car to promote the release a 40th anniversary Up in Smoke boxed vinyl/CD/DVD set in April 2018. The plan was for Marin and Chong to drive the car down Sunset Boulevard, park in front of The Roxy, which Adler owns and was used as a location for several scenes, and then step out of the car and hold a press conference with the media that had assembled out front. “I’ve been at some big openings and premieres, but that was insane,” Kimmel says. “Every news outlet was there, and they surrounded both sides of the car when it pulled up. It was just a wild scene.”
Kimmel posted a clip of the event on his Instagram page (mr.smink) that a friend took from inside the car. “I love the rumble,” Chong can be heard saying. “This car is amazing,” Marin adds. When the Impala pulls up to The Roxy, Chong goes into full character mode. He rolls down the passenger and window and exclaims, “Hey, Cheech and Chong are going to be here, man!”
Through the rest of last year, Kimmel was asked to bring the Love Machine replica to 40th anniversary events and car shows around the Los Angeles area, and he’s enjoyed getting to know Adler, Marin, and Chong in the process.
“It’s been a whole lot of fun,” Kimmel says. “I wouldn’t change a thing, but I worry that people think this is the actual car from the film. I don’t like to see that kind of misinformation posted on social media, especially since I’ve never pretended that this is the original Love Machine. I guess I should be flattered that some people can’t tell the difference.”
Well, one person can.
“When Cheech first saw the car, he said, ‘Man, you really did a great job,’” Kimmel recalls. “I knew it had been a long time since the movie had been made, but I just had to ask, ‘Is there anything that I didn’t get right?’ He thought about it for a minute and said, ‘Yeah, the smell.’”